The bad news some in the tiny, Alaska fishing port of Cordova were starting to expect came officially on Wednesday from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:
The catch in the 49th state’s most valuable sockeye salmon run “is the second lowest harvest to date in the last 50 years,” and the fishery that closed last week after a three-opening harvest of only 26,000 sockeye will remain closed indefinitely.
So much for the expected bonanza for commercial fishermen who opened the season with sockeye going for an unbelievable $9.50 per pound. Given how coveted these fish and how few have been caught, that price now looks low.
On the other hand, the catch – though tiny – looks high.
“To date, the sonar count (of fish in-river) is the ninth lowest (from) 1978-2017,” a Fish and Game announcement said.
With the fishery closed since May 28, state biologists had been hoping for a flood of sockeye into the glacially turbid river, and returns did begin to pickup as the month began.
They remained well below projected goals, however. And then it got worse.
“Miles Lake sonar passage has declined since June 4,” the state agency reported. “Cumulative sonar count through June 5 is 95,515 fish whereas a minimum of 175,559 fish are projected by this date.”
The fishery is now more than 80,000 fish shy of the projection for the minimum in-river goal.
Some in Cordova have pointed out that in 2013 – the parent year for most of the fish returning – the sockeye run was also late. Less than 105,000 fish had entered the river by June 4 that year, only ten thousand more than this year.
But there was one huge difference.
The 2013 harvest had topped a half-million sockeye by the start of June. The monster, daily catch of 310,000 sockeye at the end of May 2013 was a daily record for the Copper. The catch data made it clear to fishery managers they had a lot of sockeye schooling off the mouth of the river waiting to enter.
There were in fact so many fish stacked up offshore in 2013 that when they finally swarmed for the river, the commercial fishery couldn’t slow them much. More than 100,000 salmon went by the sonar counter on June 10 and again on June 11.
Biologists are hoping that will happen again, but there is no hint of a comparable pileup of fish offshore. The known number of sockeye to arrive at the Copper so far his year is 108,000 – 82,000 past the sonar and 26,000 caught, killed and shipped south for sale.
The known number as of this date in 2013 was 686,000.
As longtime Cordova commercial fishermen James Mykland notes,
“we will be blessed to achieve our spawning escapement goal (SEG) on Copper River sockeye in 2018, and at same time, provide opportunity for the upriver users. Remember subsistence is top priority.”
The state’s preseason outlook set aside 77,000 salmon for subsistence fishermen, who’ve already begun fishing. Another 130,500 were earmarked for personal-use dipnetters.
The subsistence fishermen, most of whom live in the Copper River valley, have both state and federal, legal priorities to salmon. Both subsistence and personal use fishing is limited to Alaska residents, but the personal use fishermen, many of whom trek to the Copper from Fairbanks or the Anchorage Metropolitan Area, lack the priority.
Along with a tiny sport fishery that kills only about 15,000 fish per year, the personal-use dipnetters can be restricted to ensure the river reaches the bottom of an SEG that ranges from 360,000 to 750,000 spawners.
The dipnetters have already seen their season sharply restricted. Dipnetting was to open Thursday at 8 a.m and run for 88 hours. It has been reduced to 24 hours from noon Saturday to noon Sunday.
A 168-hour period scheduled to run from June 11 to June 17 has only been cut nearly in half with dipnetters warned that “fishing time may be further reduced, or the fishery may be closed if sonar passage indicates a final in-river run below the lower bound of the sockeye salmon spawning escapement goal.”
The dipnet catch for the first period is expected to be small, largely because there are so few sockeye in the river. It takes about two weeks for sockeye to travel from the Miles Lake sonar into the dipnet fishery near Chitina, a dusty community of 120 about 200 miles east of Anchorage near the U.S. Canada border.
In the five days around the two-week start date of May 26, fewer than 15,000 fish entered the river. That barely qualifies as a good day at the peak of the sockeye run. More than twice as many salmon – 38,208 – passed the sonar counter on May 28 of last year.
The turnout for the opening day of the dipnet fishery is expected to be low.
Tip of iceberg
But the faltering sockeye runs in the Copper River might be only the start of a bigger story in Alaska where sockeye seem to be coming back unusually small almost everywhere.
Biologists say their shrunken size and the low return at the Copper is a sign of poor conditions on the ocean pasture. If that is the case, the Copper might not be the first weak run of little sockeye.
The Copper River fish delivered to processors averaged 4.3 pounds. Sockeye returning to the Main Bay hatchery in Prince William Sound are equally small. Those caught in the southwestern Sound fishing district are averaging 3.9 pounds and in the Montague district 3.5 pounds.
Those are normal weights for pink salmon not meatier sockeye or “red” salmon which often average five and a half to six pounds.
None of this is good news for Alaska commercial, sport, subsistence and dipnet fishermen who can only wait and hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend.